As the 95th PGA Championship moves through its first round at the Oak Hill Country Club’s East course in Rochester, N.Y., the man who has won four of them has been front, centre, back, and beyond. That’s Tiger Woods, of course. He’s won five tournaments this year, but hasn’t won a major since he took the 2008 U.S. Open. Woods starts the PGA having won the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Ohio last week by seven shots. He’s coming in on a major high, having gone really low in Akron, including a second-round, nine-under par 61.
The big question, then, has been and will continue to be whether Woods will win his 15th major this week. He’ll need to find the fairways off the tee, given the height of the rough at Oak Hill. His driver hasn’t often behaved for him when it’s mattered in majors the last few years. We’ll see if he can take his beautifully balanced practice tee swing with the driver to the course during the championship.
Meanwhile, it’s been fascinating to listen to Woods answer questions as to whether he would consider this year a “great” year if he goes again without a major. After all, he’s won those five PGA Tour events. The list includes wins in two World Golf Championships events, the Players Championship–golf’s fifth major if there is one, and there isn’t–and victories in the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Memorial Tournament that Jack Nicklaus hosts at the Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio.
Quality wins, every one. But none is a major. And Woods has been consistent throughout his brilliant, mind-boggling career in saying that a major trumps all wins, even a series of wins in significant tournaments. He said so again at Oak Hill during his Tuesday media conference.
“I think winning one major championship automatically means you had a great year,” Woods said. “Even if you miss the cut in every tournament you play in; you win one, you’re part of history.”
Woods then said this year has been a “great” one so far for him, given the number of his wins and the quality of the tournaments themselves. So let’s see: Winning one major even if a player misses the cut in every other tournament is a great year. Further, Woods believes he’s had a great year already, although he’s not won a major.
These aren’t incompatible positions. At least I don’t think they are. The writers gathered to listen to Woods returned to the matter of what constitutes a “great” year for him. Listening and watching, I had the feeling he was playing with them. He wasn’t about to say his year wouldn’t be a great one without his winning a major. He also wasn’t about to say his year would be less than great without his winning a major.
“You said earlier that five wins this year, even without a major, would still be a great year,” somebody said. “Having gone five-plus years without a major, have you adjusted your standards at all in what clarifies (I think “constitutes” was the proper word, but anyway) a great year?”
“No,” Tiger answered.
“Then would it not be without a major, still a great year?” the fellow persisted. Things were getting confusing. Perplexing. Maddening.
“Yeah,” Tiger answered.
Here’s how I see the vexing matter as I try to parse Woods’s words. I think he was saying there’s a “great” year, which he’s already had. Then there’s a “greater” year, which he will have produced should he win the PGA Championship. He’s hardly going to belittle his accomplishments this year by saying they don’t add up to a “great” year. No surprise there.
But anybody who knows Woods or who has followed him for years would have to believe he will be very disappointed should he not win this week. Sure, he’ll have had some kind of year anyway, a career year for most any player. Winning five PGA Tour events and no majors would constitute a fine career for most players. It’s hard to win on the PGA Tour, and it’s harder to win a major.
Hard and harder. Great and greater. It’s adding up to quite a parlour game, even a light-hearted word game. There’s “great.” There’s “greater.” And then there’s “greatest.”
But I’m not going there. Now, let’s see where Tiger goes. Well, he’s heading to the 10th tee at Oak Hill right now to play his opening hole. I expect a great PGA Championship. You?
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein